Autism Finds Its Voice

By Yabroff, Jennie | Newsweek, January 24, 2011 | Go to article overview

Autism Finds Its Voice


Yabroff, Jennie, Newsweek


Byline: Jennie Yabroff

Four new friends sit around a table at an outdoor cafe in Helsinki, typing on handheld devices. Shyly, Tracy sends Henna a message asking if she might like to visit him. Avoiding eye contact, Henna types back that she will need to ask her mother. The scene could be that of any group of teenagers, awkward and bashful, more comfortable texting than engaging in face-to-face conversation. The difference is that the typists range from young adults to middle-aged. And all of them are autistic.

In the documentary Wretches & Jabberers, Tracy Thresher and his friend Larry Bissonnette, who is also autistic, travel from Vermont to Sri Lanka, Japan, and Finland to meet with other autistic adults. Both men grew up not speaking: Larry spent his childhood in institutions, while Tracy attended special-education classes where he passed his days doing puzzles. As adults they learned to type and acquired some verbal abilities. Today they are advocates for their condition, speaking (with the aid of their keyboards and assistants) at conferences about the myths and realities of autism. The goal of the tour, Tracy types in the film, is to "make a difference in the lives of people who can't talk but are intelligent."

The idea of a sentient self imprisoned in an uncooperative body speaks to our greatest fears of isolation. We want to believe we are all capable of expression, given the right tools. In one scene in the movie, a Sri Lankan visitor asks if the men think any autistic child can communicate, or if he needs a special talent. Larry types in reply that all people want communication; it is not a talent but a basic human desire.

Making that desire a reality can be complicated. In the film, Larry, Tracy, and the autistic adults they visit type on special keyboards using a method called facilitated or assisted communication. It is a laborious process supervised by a trained assistant who sometimes supports the hand or arm of the typist to help control impulsivity and motor functioning. …

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